Argument mapping

Today I want to discuss yet another form of knowledge mapping that I have found useful in my workflow: argument mapping.  Argument mapping shows the structure of a discussion.  You can use it to develop the flow of a piece you are putting together yourself (an article or presentation, for example), or you can use it to clarify how someone else is making their case.   It’s another visual way of aiding the thinking process.  Graphically, an argument map typically uses a few colors or icons to distinguish different parts of the argument, such as conclusions/contentions/hypotheses; supporting statements (or reasons); objections; and evidence.

Like mind maps and concept maps, argument maps (AM) can be drawn manually, but software is available as well – more on that at the end of this post.

I normally use argumentation software to develop new presentations, only creating a slideshow when I am satisfied with how I have developed my thesis.  Caroline Reid at Eastern Kentucky University discussed  what it helps her students do, and I find this applies to me also: “It enables the student to create/manipulate a visual representation of the logical structure of an argument ….[It] helps students to “tease out” the main parts of an argument . . . .  Unexamined assumptions are exposed and even the relevance of what may seem like a false dichotomy can become transparent” (Reid, 2011, 148 – 9). It can also help you see the holes in your case. When there’s a lack of balance, that also becomes obvious.

One of the strengths of argument mapping, like concept mapping, is that it cuts down on verbiage.  Succinct sentences and physical demonstration of relationships, usually hierarchical, help the user make sense of the material.  In fact, argument mapping is  even more rigidly structured than concept mapping, and certainly more so than mind mapping, which is meant to be creative and freely associative.  Argument mapping software programs contain predetermined elements, and the user must choose from among these elements to construct the map.

Here’s an example:

Argument map

Source:  Tim van Gelder, “What is argument mapping?“, posted at Bringing visual clarity to complex issues, accessed 2/16/2014

When arguments are complex, laying them out visually helps you identify  the multiple parts and understand how they are related to each other.  You begin by distinguishing the premises from the conclusion.  You must also understand whether each premise contributes independently to the conclusion, or whether certain premises must be linked to produce the conclusion (co-premises).  Arguments can have chains of (sub) conclusions, which are seen more clearly in graphic form than  in text.

While concept maps reflect one’s understanding of a domain and are normally laid out using single words or short phrases, argument maps are suited to representing positions that need to be defended using logic supported by evidence.

A typical map puts the conclusion/contention/hypothesis at the top.  The premises and objections are shown below, and evidence is shown at the foundation level.  Computer aided argument mapping programs (CAAM) typically use green to denote support and red for objections.

Applications in higher education

There’s been a certain amount of discussion of the use of AM in higher education.  Some have studied it as a form of note-taking, looking at whether it helps students understand and retain material (Dwyer, Hogan, and Stewart, 2009 and 2013).   Davies (2009) refers to those who use argument mapping to teach critical thinking skills.  Argument mapping has been used to guide problem based learning (Billings and Kowalski, 2008; Wu, Wang, Spector, and Yang, 2013).  As pointed out above, other educators have students use argument mapping to develop their own theses (see also Morrow and Weston, A Workbook for Arguments, 2011).

Using multiple types of mapping in PKM

Argument mapping is an appropriate tool for one stage in the sensemaking process – not for all of them.  Frustrating as it is, we need to learn a variety of tools to see us through the whole process, just as we need to learn to use hammers, screwdrivers and drills, or mixers, slow cookers, and paring knives.  AM works in place of text outlining to get the structure of a thesis right – but it’s not the right tool for sorting out where your thesis is situated within a discipline, or which part of a larger question you want to take on and how your piece relates to the rest.  Mind mapping or concept mapping might serve better for these tasks.

Wang et al. (2013) designed a study of dual mapping learning which combined argument mapping and concept mapping.  Argument mapping was used to guide medical students in complex practical problem solving, and concept mapping was used to ensure that this was then placed in an appropriate knowledge construction  process.

Software for argument mapping

A number of software packages are available.  It’s not usually hard to learn to use them; their shortcomings are often in how they are stored and shared.  Also, like both mind mappers and concept mappers, AM projects come and go, so be careful to choose one with a track record and which seems to offer future stability.

The one I have seen most frequently mentioned in the academic world is the commercial product Rationale, produced by the Australian company AusthinkCompendium is a free, open source tool which can be used as an argument mapper; it can also serve more loosely for mapping issues in discussions.  Sharing maps is somewhat awkward, in my experience, and now that Compendium has become open source, support is informal.  I used it for some years and loved it, but the difficulty of sharing maps limited its usefulness for me beyond strictly personal use.  Debategraph is free and web-based; it allows for very complex and subtle maps and seems to be stable.  I don’t care for the limited amount of information I can see on the screen at one time, compared to other applications.  Finally, there is a very new program available from Georgia Tech called Agora (“Argument mapping that stimulates reasoning, critique, deliberation, and creativity”); I saw this announced a few weeks ago and know little about it as yet.  As with both mind mapping and concept mapping, be careful when you stumble across a promising new application; developers get enthusiastic about the idea but projects die out when a university lab dissolves or developers move on to other interests.

I have found argument mapping enormously useful in helping me think more rigorously.  I have to say that I also just enjoy it — always a plus.


Billings, Diane M, and Karren Kowalski, 2008.  “Teaching Tips.”  Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing 39 (6), 246 – 247.

Dwyer, Christopher p., Michael J. Hogan, and Ian Stewart, 2010. “The evaluation of argument mapping as a learning tool: Comparing the effects of map reading versus text reading on comprehension and recall of arguments.”  Thinking Skills and Creativity 5 (1): 16 – 22.

Dwyer, Christopher p., Michael J. Hogan, and Ian Stewart, 2013.  “An examination of the effects of argument mapping on students’ memory and comprehension performance.”  Thinking Skills and Creativity 8: 11 – 24.

Morrow, David R. and Anthony Weston, 2011.  A workbook for arguments: a complete course in critical thinking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Reid, Caroline E., 2011.  “Rationale argument mapping software.”  Journal of Technology in Human Services 29 (2), 147 – 154.



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